Les Indes galantes, Bavarian State Opera

Yet, whilst there has been much Handel, Monteverdi, Cavalli, et
., in recent years, the French Baroque in general and Rameau’s
music in particular seem to have been a closed book – as so often in the world
outside France. Let us leave aside for the moment debates concerning whether
‘Baroque’ should be a suitable designation, merely noting that
Rameau’s music seems to have provoked the word’s first artistic
usage. An anonymous letter to the Mercure de France,
occasioned by the 1733 Paris premiere of the composer’s first
opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, printed in the Mercure de France,
dismissed the opera’s novelty as ‘du barocque’; its melody
was incoherent, its harmony unduly dissonant, and its metre chaotic.

[Click here for a review of a streamed performance of this production.]

That was certainly not how Rameau sounded on this occasion, quite the
contrary. Indeed, I should not have minded a little more truculence – if not
incoherence! – from Ivor Bolton’s conducting. Its fluency was admirable,
but I could not help notice – and, at times, become a little tired by – a
tendency remarked upon by a friend beforehand: namely the conductor’s
penchant for turning everything into a dance. There is much dance music, of
course, in this opÈra-ballet, but that is not to say that everything
must be. I know that many ‘authenticke’ musicians will argue to the
contrary, even, God help us, in Gluck and Mozart, but the declamatory French of
Rameau’s recitatives – here, admirably, indeed often thrillingly,
supported by a continuo group involving Luke Green (harpsichord), Fred Jacobs
and Michael Fremiuth (theorbo), and Werner Matzke (cello) – is not necessarily
to be confined to them. The ravishing airs, duets, and above all, ensembles,
would have benefited, at least to my ears, from greater – dare I say, quoting
the writer to the Mercure de France, more ‘chaotic’? –

That said, and that said perhaps at too great a length, there was otherwise
much to relish from the Munich Festival Orchestra. Even I did not find myself
missing modern instruments. (This is, I learned afterwards, the Dresden
Festival Orchestra on location.) Indeed, the woodwind in particular very much
offered their own, splendidly Gallic justification. Moreover, strings (twelve
violins, five violas, seven cellos, two bass viols, one violone) were certainly
not parsimonious with their vibrato, quite from it; this was an enlightened as
well as an Enlightened performance from all concerned. Rameau’s love of
orchestral sound, its implications for Gluck and, via him, for Mozart too
(think of Idomeneo!) was vividly and, above all, dramatically,

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s direction, choreography included, treads a
judicious line between various competing elements. If I were a little surprised
that Munich chose this Rameau work as its first – for me, a tragÈdie
, such as Hippolyte, would have been a more obviously
compelling choice – then the voguish (for the 1730s, that is!) amalgam of opera
and ballet offered opportunities to ravish other of the senses too.
Cherkaoui’s dancers never disappointed, their movements – do these people
have no bones in their bodies? – not merely responsive to the music, to the
drama, but intensifying its possibilities, above all visual-dramatic tension at
points of decision. If one wished to visualise a Rameau flute line, for
instance, one could have done far worse than watch the movement on stage.

Without pressing his point too far, Cherkaoui probes what might hold this
prologue and four entrÈes – as in Rameau’s definitive version –
together. Opening in a classroom, the teacher, HÈbÈ, leading her children in
conjugation of French verbs, the unified drama takes them – and us – on a tour
of different civilisations, and shows them, not the war personified by Bellone,
often to have as much to teach us as we have to teach them. That is not to say
that Rameau’s work, still less Louis Fuzelier’s libretto, can or
should be understood in twenty-first century terms; however, its ambiguity, its
insistence upon asking ‘who actually is the barbarian here?’
reminds us that we – and, looking at the world around us, how could we doubt
this? – have no monopoly on multicultural virtue.

Yet there are differences too. The homosexual love denied by the Incan
Huescar (here in European clerical carb) in Cherbaouki’s
funeral-turned-wedding setting for the second entrÈe also finds its
fulfilment; L’Amour, for us today, does not discriminate, heterosexual
and homosexual love are, ultimately, after a struggle, equally valued.
Moreover, for an English visitor, more than unusually embarrassed by his
nationality at the moment, Munich’s ecumenism offered hope that Europe
and indeed the world beyond it will survive. National flags, favoured by
Bellone and a visiting American President, are not banished, but there is a
vision of something greater to be glimpsed, in the European flags – and,
indeed, in the exquisite blue and yellow of many of the children’s
outfits. (The Kinderstaterie of the Bavarian State Opera were well
trained and delightful in their roles.) And so, the young men who forsake HÈbÈ
and Europe for the ‘Indies’ (an all-purpose, ‘exotic’
Orientalism or Occidentalism!), learn through experience that conflict is not
the way to prosper; the realisation of the peace-pipe ceremony at the close
strikingly fulfils the work’s strikingly internationalist sentiment,
dancers and vocalists as one.

The singing was, without exception, wonderful. Words were as clear as
Rameau’s lines, whether in solo, duet, ensemble, or choral numbers. The
Balthasar-Neumann Chor was certainly not the least impressive aspect of the
performance. Lisette Oropesa and Ana Quintans set the scene splendidly in the
Prologue, HÈbÈ and L’Amour carefully differentiated, with Goran Juri? a
strikingly successful general-in-drag. Tareq Nazmi’s sensitive bass
offered wisdom and humanity; Cherbaouki’s skilful comparison between the
roles of Osman and Ali was given sympathetic life, as were other such doublings
of roles (more than mere doublings). Mathias Vidal and Anna Prohaska shone
likewise as Carlos/Damon and Phani/Fatime. Both imparted depth in lightness,
and lightness in depth, as graceful on stage as of voice. Cyril Auvity’s
unerringly stylish tenor, FranÁois Lis’s deep yet never bluff bass, and
Elsa Benoit’s sparkling yet variegated soprano offered other highlights;
so too did the highly attractive chiaroscuro of John Moore’s baritone.
Above all, there was a true sense of collaboration, rendering the performance
as well as the work substantially more than the sum of its parts. As we once
hoped – and perhaps may one day hope again – for a Europe too often divided,
indeed torn apart, by Bellone…

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

HÈbÈ, Zima: Lisette Oropesa; Bellone: Goran Juri?; L’Amour/ZaÔre: Ana
Quintans; Osman, Ali: Tareq Nazmi; Emilie: Elsa Benoit; ValËre, Tacmas: Cyril
Auvity; Huascar, Alvar: FranÁois Lis; Phani, Fatime: Anna Prohaska; Carlos,
Damon: Mathias Vidal; Adario: John Moore. Dancers: Navala ‘Niku’
Chaudhari, Kazutomi ‘Tzuki’ Kozuki, Jason Kittelberger, Denis
‘KounÈ’ Kuhnert, Elias Lazaridis, Nicola Leahey, Shintaro Oue,
James Vu Anh Pham, Acacia Schachte, Patrick Williams ‘Twoface’
Seebacher’, Jennifer White, Ema Yuasa. Director, Choreography: Sidi Larbi
Cherkaoui (director, choreography); Set designs: Anna Viebbrock; Costumes:
Greta Goiris; Lighting: Michael Bauer; Dramaturgy: Antonio Cuenca Ruiz, Miron
Hakenbeck (dramaturgy); Choreographic Assistance: Jason Kittelberger.
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor, Freiburg (chorus master: Detlef Bratschke)/Munich
Festival Orchestra/Ivor Bolton (conductor). Prinzregententheater, Munich,
Sunday 24 July 2016.

image_description=Les Indes galante, Bavarian State Opera
product_title=Les Indes galates , Bavarian State Opera
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Elsa Benoit (Emilie) and Dancers of the Eastman Company

Photo credit: Wilfried Hˆsl